Sunday, February 2, 2014

Written by the winners and the close runner-ups

Recently I've been reading Marc J. Seifer's Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla. Tesla, of course, has become a posthumous cult icon, and his appearances in various types of fiction... well, see for yourself. And i'm not immune. There's a fascinating story there.

Reading about him I see that he was indeed a brilliant man and inventor and a seemingly tireless worker. A mixture of unlikely odd jobs and skillful gambling - especially pool - paid his way through engineering school. From then on he had more ideas than really anyone knew what to do with.

He was also a great self-promoter who knew how to use the exoticism of his Serbian/Croatian background to his advantage. If television had become a mass medium during his lifetime he would have been on one talk show or another every day of the week.

Tesla is the perfect subject for romanticization through books and movies. Thomas Edison, though he suffered some reversals, is too much of an establishment figure. Someone like William E. Sawyer, a prolific inventor who died young well before the twentieth century started, is too obscure, his story too depressing. Nikola Tesla is Goldilocks' just right. Even those who root for the underdog, as a rule, don't choose the lowest ones.


susan said...

I've been interested in Tesla's work ever since I first heard about him back in the 70s. The book sounds like a very fascinating and well researched biography of someone who was a very rare genius. It's too bad he fell so far and I'd be interested in reading more about what happened.

I read your link to Wm. Sawyer; yes, a very depressing story, but Tesla was in a class all his own.

Ben said...

Tesla was a special case in both intellect and determination, as well as charm. As for his fall, it's kind of an old story. The society of electricians in the late 19th and early 20th century was exclusive, and also seems to have been kind of bitchy. Former friends of his turned to enemies and started collaborating with other rivals.